Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

American

Updike on 43rd Street

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 8, 2014 08:24 pm


A literary biography ought to possess a voice and attitude that reflects and complements the literary voice and attitude of its subject. Leon Edel's life of Henry James is prim and probing, with an energy that gradually accumulates into stately magnificence. Gerald Nicosia's biography of Jack Kerouac is passionate, melancholy and fitful. This is how it should be, but this implicit rule must have been daunting to Adam Begley when he began writing Updike, the first comprehensive biography of the great fiction writer and critic John Updike, who died in 2009.

John Updike was, after all, one of the most confident and erudite prose stylists of his era, and an immensely likable writer. Fortunately, Adam Begley rises to the challenge in this enjoyable and perceptive biography, and while Begley doesn't attempt sentences of Updikian beauty and complexity, he does follow the master's lead in conjuring buoyant revelations from ordinary situations. Like a good Updike novel, this book captures the richness of one person's well-lived life.






Philosophy Weekend: Can A Person Be Guilty Of Genocide?

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 6, 2014 08:03 am


One of many unforgettable moments in Philip Gourevitch's book about the 1994 Rwanda genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is the author's visit to Gitarama prison a year after the massacre. He finds a scene of incredible physical misery, though the sufferers barely complain. It's the suspected Hutu perpetrators of the previous year's genocide, not the Tutsi victims, who are crowded together here.

On the day of my visit to Gitarama Prison, six thousand four hundred and twenty-four prisoners formed a solid-looking knot, and I had to plan each step I took with care. It was difficult to figure out how the people fitted together -- which limbs went with which body, or why a head appeared to have grown three legs without a torso in between. Many of the feet were badly swollen. The bodies were clad in rags.

Gourevitch is perplexed by what he finds as he visits various prisons holding thousands and thousands of suspected Hutu killers. The prisoners could easily escape, the author observes, but they don't try. They just sit there.

Although the tightly packed inmates were all accused of terrible violence, they were generally calm and orderly; fights among them were said to be rare, and killings unheard of. They greeted visitors amiably, often with smiles and with hands extended for a shake ... The captain kept calling out, "Here's a journalist from the United States," and the huddled men, squatting at our feet, clapped mechanically and made little bowing motions. It occurred to me that this was the famous mob mentality of blind obedience to authority which was often described in attempts to explain the genocide.

Blind obedience to authority is what these bewildered prisoners are guilty of, and it appears possible that they are so passive because they have already judged themselves to be guilty, that they look so confused because they don't understand themselves how they suddenly transformed into murderers. Some of them admit this to Gourevitch, and later he talks to a former Hutu leader who has returned to the village where he presided over the murder of approximately seventy of his neighbors to ask for forgiveness from the few survivors who remain.






Philosophy Weekend: Genocide is Not a Force of Nature

by Levi Asher on Friday, March 28, 2014 10:03 pm


We speak of genocide as a problem from Hell, but we rarely speak of it as an ethical problem that can be solved. This suggests that we have ceased to think of genocide as a problem of human dimensions. We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes: we see it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way, and if it ever does we plan to hide.

Philosophers need to get their courage back, because genocide is an ethical problem that must be solved. Organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International toil weakly to solve it as a political problem, while Doctors Without Borders fights it as a practical problem, striving year after year around the world to alleviate the pain. But none of these organizations are designed to analyze the psychological roots of the problem, or to propose great philosophical epiphanies that might change the world. Indeed, I know I must appear foolish when I suggest that any kind of moral epiphany could possibly help, even though I'm quite sure it could.

We should expect our best ethical philosophers to address this topic often, but the great thinkers of the 20th century shied away. Sartre did not manage to communicate clearly on the topic of genocide, nor did Nozick or Rawls or Tillich or Jaspers or (ahem) Heidegger. Today, we have a few well-known academic ethicists like Derek Parfit, but they tend to steer far clear of bold speculations about the causes of our worst real-world problems. Alain de Botton has created a clever and brazen philosophical website called The Philosophers Mall that attempts to connect trendy news stories about celebrities and pop culture to philosophical questions. De Botton is at least trying to think outside the box -- but a celebration of triviality in philosophy is the opposite of what we need the most.

We are a couple of weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that took 800,000 lives in Rwanda in April 1994. I'm sure this 20th anniversary will generate some news blips, and perhaps a reminder of the disaster that is still occurring today in Darfur.






Philosophy Weekend: The Atrocity Cube

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm


It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.

Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.

I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.

The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).






Philosophy Weekend: Blood Alienation

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 15, 2014 09:50 am



What can we discover by analyzing the worst atrocities of modern history together, looking for patterns and common features? A whole lot, it turns out -- and we're just getting started.

Last weekend we discussed the surprising fact that every society will always consider itself highly moral and principled, even as this society may engage in vile activities. We called this the Ashley Wilkes Principle (named after the noble, brainy Confederate hero of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind). This week I'd like to examine another notion that appears to be surprising and self-evident at the same time.

A recent book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 by the historian Alan Taylor drives home a single point: during the War of 1812, when the British Navy invaded and occupied Virginia's Chesapeake coastline, an event occurred that badly shook Virginia's well-entrenched plantation society. Slaves began to realize that they could escape bondage by reaching the British ships that lay ashore. Once they escaped, they would conspire with their British rescuers and help them invade their own plantations and villages to retrieve their families and free more slaves.






Why I Wrote "Light of the Diddicoy"

by Eamon Loingsigh on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 09:58 am


(Eamon Loingsigh is a New York City novelist who has written articles for Litkicks about Lautreamont, J. D. Salinger and Taylor Mead. His latest work is Light of the Diddicoy, and here's how this novel came to be.)

First things first, I have no choice but to write. I am a writer. I write. I made a decision long ago that in my life I will either be a writer, or a failed writer.

My first two books, the novella An Affair of Concoctions and the poetry collection Love and Maladies, got me started, but I decided to gain a larger audience by utilizing my storytelling with a more popular topic.

I have noticed over the past few years the acceptance of genre writing as literature. There are many examples of this crossover, but maybe the most popular would be Cormac McCarthy's dark Westerns. I am no super-fan of his work, but I was impressed that he moved the genre from the separated "Westerns" bookshelf to mainstream acceptability, with Harold Bloom even declaring McCarthy's work "literature".






Philosophy Weekend: The Bill Nye/Ken Ham Debate

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 9, 2014 09:45 am


This week, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum in Kentucky spent two and a half hours debating the origin of the universe in a well-publicized update of the Scopes Trial of 1920. I could only endure the tedium of the YouTube broadcast for about a half hour, but even though I didn't watch the whole thing I am pleased by the friendly gesture this event represents. Sometimes a willingness to meet in open debate can be more significant than any actual arguments contained within.

Amidst the social media conversations following the debate, I was also impressed by a page of photos of regular people holding up papers expressing questions or ideas supporting the creationist point of view. I don't get the logic behind some of these expressions -- and yet they all appear to be sincere, and a few may even be meaningful. In the photo above, a woman's comparison of the idea of God and the idea of the Big Band strikes a chord. It is true that the idea of the Big Bang as constantly described by physics teachers and Morgan Freeman is as ultimately inexorable as the traditional idea of God.






The Century of William S. Burroughs

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 11:00 pm


He was the oldest of the major Beat Generation writers. That's why William S. Burroughs is today the first Beat writer to celebrate a centennial.

Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914. He arrived on this planet the same year as the First World War.

Some people don't call Burroughs a Beat writer, because they prefer to think of him as a postmodern experimentalist, or a psychic investigator, or a political activist. He was those things too, but of course he was a Beat writer.






Bradley the Buyer (from 'Naked Lunch')

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 04:17 pm


One of the first pages I ever created on this website was a biography of William S. Burroughs, and I also typed in a favorite piece of text from his signature novel Naked Lunch, titled Bradley The Buyer. Today is the hundredth birthday of William S. Burroughs, and as part of the celebration I'm running this excerpt again. The illustration was created for this piece for Literary Kicks by the awesome artist Goodloe Byron, proprietor of Stone Bird News.






Philosophy Weekend: Wealth and Envy

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 1, 2014 11:33 am


A video that's been making the rounds about a clueless super-wealthy plutocrat who compares America's treatment of the rich to the Holocaust and brags about his wristwatch that's worth "a six-pack of Rolexes" has got me to thinking. The most revealing thing about this video is the boyish excitement this 80-year-old former investor seems to feel about his expensive watch. He, like some others who argue for pro-wealth policies, seems to think that liberals and progressives who want to tackle the problem of income inequality are suffering from Rolex envy.

I wonder what it would feel like to wish for an expensive watch. I don't know how much a Rolex costs, but I've never remotely yearned for one, and if I owned a Rolex I wouldn't want to wear it. I don't wear a wristwatch at all, and really don't understand why anyone does. An expensive watch doesn't strike me as an attractive object the way that, say, an agate or a piece of ocean glass is. Gold and silver are not my favorite colors. And when I want to know what time it is, I just look at my phone.

And yet I've heard from economic conservatives that economic progressives like me must envy the rich. I really don't think most of us do. The lifestyle of luxury is not always attractive, even when it is curious. At most, most of us envy the freedom that would come with a moderate amount of wealth, and that's as far as the envy goes.






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